The race from hell
The front cover of the Nov. 5, 1991, issue of Business Report is not subtle. There are head shots of Republican David Duke and Democrat Edwin Edwards, with a big red X over Duke's face. “Business faces disaster,” the headline warns.
The story on the governor's race itself is less definitive. Several interview subjects declined to pick a side, and one entrepreneur suggested he might be more successful if Duke defeated Edwards in the runoff election, fearing that returning Edwards to the mansion after a four-year absence would be a victory for good-ol'-boy cronyism.
But City National Bank President Graham Thompson seemed to speak for the majority.
“For a lot of us, it'll be the toughest decision we'll ever have to make,” he said. “I never thought I'd be voting for Edwin Edwards.”
Louisiana's “race from hell” was winding down at that point. Incumbent Buddy Roemer, the Harvard-educated Democrat-turned-Republican favored by reformers, had been squeezed out in the primary election, leaving the state with an unappetizing choice: Edwards, who had faced racketeering charges; and Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader with neo-Nazi sympathies.
Roemer's Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Paul Templet, known for implementing a “scorecard” that tied eligibility for tax breaks to environmental compliance, often had clashed with big industry. But many business leaders felt Roemer had performed a service to the state's image by “slaying the dragon” and ousting the ethically challenged Edwards four years earlier.
But as closely as Edwards was associated with the perception of old-style backroom deals, Duke was a throwback to an even uglier chapter of Louisiana's history. A Duke administration, many feared, would lead to the loss of tourist events, kill interstate business deals, and make attracting highly educated workers even more difficult. This view was best summarized in what is surely the most famous political bumper sticker in Louisiana history: “Vote for the crook: It's important.”
As it turned out, both candidates were crooks. Edwards was convicted in 2000 on racketeering, extortion and fraud charges for demanding bribes for casino licenses during his fourth term. He served 8.5 years and was released in 2011. Duke served a year in prison in 2003 and 2004 for mail fraud and filing false tax returns after he admitted bilking his supporters.
The damage done to the state's image by the race from hell, which created headlines internationally, and by Edwards' subsequent malfeasance is hard to calculate.
The next three governors were reasonably scandal-free, and the perception of the state's business environment has improved significantly since the Edwards days.
As for Roemer, he tried running for governor again in 1995 but missed the runoff. He resurfaced in 2011 with a long-shot run for president that never gained traction. In a letter to supporters after giving up, Roemer promised to continue pushing his signature issue of reducing the influence of big money in politics.
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